Danny Briere, Sean Couturier and the Philadelphia Flyers Quandary at the Forward Position

By Dustin Leed (@D_LEED)

Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The curious case of Danny Briere provides a simple proposal, really.

Does Danny Briere really fit with the Philadelphia Flyers?

The simple, far less cumbersome answer: no.

Easier said than done.

When the prized free agent from the 2007 offseason signed a massive eight-year, $52-million dollar contract with the Flyers that awarded him a full no-movement clause, the Flyers were in dire need of making an offseason splash.

At the time of the signing, he recently completed a 95-point season and the Flyers were fresh off a 22-win season.

But nearly six years later, in quite a different situation with a new head coach, that contract isn’t getting any better.

He’s sort of an anomaly on the ice for the Flyers, he scores some big goals and makes some big mistakes, too. He’s been known to take a bad penalty or two and sometimes a liability in his own defensive end.

The suggestion by some most Flyers’ fans: trade Danny Briere; play Sean Couturier in the second line center position.

My twist: I can’t see teams exactly jumping out of their seats to acquire a 35-year-old, declining forward that comes with a $6.5-million dollar cap hit. Remember what most thought Simon Gagne’s value was before he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning?

In addition to a $6.5-million dollar cap hit for this season, he’s due $7-million in salary. In the shortened season will make $3,745,946. He’s made $1,589,189 through March 1 and is set to make another $2,156,757 by seasons end in terms of salary. Moving forward Briere’s $6.5m cap hit stays put but because of the front-loaded contract he’s set to make $3-million in salary next season and $2-million the following season (the last year of his contract).

Because of the former, I’m not sold that any return on a Briere trade would be considered anything more than a stop-gap. In fact, some are surprised at reports that numerous teams are interested. Briere’s value isn’t exactly sky-high. Perhaps Holmgren could pry a defenseman, who likely would just be a plug-in top-6 type guy or a top-9 forward with limited upside. In my estimation, it would be far from a good ol’ hockey trade that helps both teams involved.

The problem is, if a trade is unlikely, Briere kind of seems out of place on the current Flyers’ roster.

Let’s take a further look at it with help from Matt Bernot from The Checking Line. All statistical information is from Behindthenet.ca and accurate through the Washington Capitals game on Feb. 27.

First up: usage, where does Briere start and finish when he is on the ice, his zone start and zone finish.

Offensive zone start:  52.7%
Offensive zone finish: 50.3%

*Note: Last season Briere started in the offensive zone 57% of his time on ice and finished in the offensive zone 50.7%.

What this means: the puck moves towards the Flyers defensive zone more often than not when Briere is on the ice. It’s more or less a sign of bad puck possession regardless of what the score-sheet says.

What type of opponents does he face?

Corsi Relative Quality of Competition: 0.722, which isn’t bad. He is fourth among the Flyers’ 13 forwards who have 10+ games played, so he’s facing predominantly the second-pair defensemen and second line forwards from the opposing team.

How does he do with those minutes?

Relative Corsi: -7.6, Ninth out of 13 forwards. Short answer: The team performs better when he’s off the ice. This is partially a result though of how dominant Jake Voracek (+21.7) is. Oh, and by the way, Tye McGinn’s Corsi Rel is +22.2 (best among all forwards). #careerminorleaguer

What does this mean?

Briere’s a decent offensive forward when playing sheltered minutes against second line opponents or lower, but the inference is, the coaching staff doesn’t trust him in any “hard” situation. They’re putting him in a place to succeed, but he’s not super dominant at it.

The belief is, Briere actually prefers to play center, despite the defensive struggles because he’s more comfortable at the pivot. Also, the belief is Briere isn’t nearly rough and tumble enough to play the wing in Peter Laviolette’s system. Laviolette is trying, by giving some second line center minutes to Brayden Schenn. His advanced stats are actually worse when he’s playing the wing.

Despite Briere’s questionable defensive – ability – we’ll say, it’s been Danny who’s still found himself in primarily top-6 minutes under Laviolette. The head coach isn’t afraid to build a lineup around Briere’s weakness, by keeping the diminutive forward, at center.

But why?

His advanced stats show more of the same in the playoffs.

And just as his supporters cite his 37 goals and 72 points in 68 playoff games, it is just as easy to look at the very next column in his traditional statistics: -8. That’s because with Briere on the ice, the Flyers have been out-scored 55-48 at five-on-five. In the past two playoffs, the Flyers have been outscored 26-15 with Briere on the ice.

More from Geoff Detweiler on SBNationPhilly

On the other side, it is true that the Flyers have been both outscored and outshot with Briere on the ice at 5-on-5, despite largely keeping him away from the opponent’s top-6 and his own goal.

Yes, he’s a big-time playoff performer with 50 goals and 59 points in 108 games and that will keep playoff-contending teams interested despite his defensive woes. His 13 game-winning playoff goals rank him 13th ahead of guys named Yzerman, Trottier, Roenick, Robitaille, Shanahan and Federov.

If a team out there is looking for a scoring boost in the playoffs, which allegedly some are, it’s Briere that doesn’t want any part of it and therein lies the problem.

He recently told Frank Seravalli:

“I’ve been a Flyer for a long time. My heart belongs in Philadelphia with the Flyers. I can’t see myself playing anywhere else.”

And as of now, that’s it.

That’s where it stands. He deserved his NMC, he’s a face in the Flyers’ community, an alternate captain and a committed professional to the city.

But let’s take it a little further…

Has Briere’s contract caused Sean Couturier to become a bad fit in the Flyers lineup?

There’s no doubting Couturier’s role on this team, as early as next year, in my estimation, Couturier should be in a second line center role. ‘Should be’ meaning given the Flyers coach sees him in that role and the Flyers general manager can make that happen.

Couturier’s ice time and opportunity has been limited before the acquisition of Simon Gagne, he’s been more of a specialist, so to speak. More notably, Couturier is Peter Laviolette’s choice as go-to shutdown center. Couturier’s been the key to shutting down the opposition and that isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s a really good thing. Couturier is playing the toughest minutes against the toughest competition this season as Eric T. from Broad Street Hockey points out in this brilliant piece.

Sean Couturier is taking on the toughest minutes a coach can dole out. He’s facing the opponents’ top lines every night (he ranks 18th in the league in Corsi Rel QoC, which correlates pretty strongly with the quality of opposing forwards faced). He’s starting in the defensive zone an awful lot (he ranks 27th in defensive zone starts).

But with that, Couturier usually finds himself with wingers such as Tye McGinn, Mike Knuble, Max Talbot and Zac Rinaldo and when top-6 minutes become available, they haven’t been awarded to Couturier.

On the second power play unit at the beginning of the season, it was a flop. More recently Couturier has again been given power play time.

Here’s to hoping the Flyers bench man and front office do see him as more than a shutdown center – like most Flyers fans do – and give him the opportunity to play with some more proven wingers.

It seems to me, Briere is prohibiting that from happening because he can’t log the tough minutes against top line competition like Couturier is.

The Flyers do want Couturier to develop in to a top-6 forward, right?

Right?

Of course they do, but they should give him some more help offensively and put him in position to do that. The Simon Gagne acquisition is a great start. There’s no doubting Couturier’s scoring prowess in junior hockey and the likely hood of that showing in the NHL. It’s going to happen; given the opportunity. Because of his shutdown capabilities and tendency to play 200-feet, value for a player is through the roof.

The fear among some: Laviolette and the Flyers like the 20-year-old as a shutdown/third-line center a little too much. He’s turned in to a remarkable shutdown forward as seen in the 2011-12 NHL Playoffs.

But is also one of the few players who can fetch the Flyers their biggest need: a young, NHL difference-making defenseman.

You’ve made it this far, it may hurt, but this will only take a couple more minutes.

It’s not about giving up on Couturier, it’s about using value to go get value where there is a need.

And where is the Flyers biggest need? It’s on defense.

We’re not talking about another Patrick Sharp deal here, it’s about getting a player in return whose upside, potential and trade value is equal to or greater than that of Couturier.

Briere would likely only land the Flyers a plug-in top-6 type guy or a top-9 forward with limited upside IF* Briere even agrees to waive his full no-movement clause.

Couturier could maybe land the Flyers the young, top-4 defenseman the Flyers have coveted for a very long time.

It’s safe to say by looking at the current Flyers’ roster and organizational depth chart there is a glaring need for a young, yet established defenseman with high-upside. Their cupboard is bare.

There is a reason the Flyers threw over $100-million dollars to both Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Philly realizes there is a need to be filled.

And no, the argument: “The Flyers could have traded Couturier for Weber and didn’t,” “If they didn’t move him for Weber, they won’t trade him for ___,” is not factual. Philly thought they were getting Weber without any player movement, just a boatload of cash.

Whether Andrej Meszaros comes back and stays healthy or not, the Flyers need a defenseman now. They have some guys who should not be hovering around the 15:00-20:00-minute mark of time on ice. Also, they need a defenseman in the near future. Kimmo Timonen is 99% sure next season is his last and the Flyers literally have no defensemen ready to step-in a log big minutes.

Couturier is the man who can make it happen.

The Flyers cupboard of young forwards isn’t so bare. Especially with the progression of Scott Laughton, who already fits the mold of a defensive shutdown guy, and Nick Cousins, the OHL’s current point leader. If Laviolette continues to mold Brayden Schenn into his natural position at center, with top-6 minutes, it still leaves Couturier as the odd man out.

What kind of defenseman could be eyed in any Couturier trade?

The type of defenseman you build a team around.

Here’s a list of some soon-to-be restricted free agent defenseman: Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zach Bogosian, David Rundblad, Karl Alzner, Nick Leddy, David Savard, Travis Hamonic and Slava Voynov.

Please note, I’m not stating that Couturier should be traded for each of these young defensemen and I’m also not stating that Couturier-only would land the Flyers each of these defensemen. One way or another, depending how the Flyers feel, none of these names are considered a stretch with Couturier involved. Each name could be a starting point for a team in dire-need.

Scouting reports supplied by Elite Prospects and Todd Cordell.

Tier 1

Ekman-Larsson: “Ekman-Larsson is a highly skilled defenseman blessed with excellent hockey sense and impressive skating ability. He moves very smoothly and has incredible mobility. Also, he is very skilled with the puck and a capable playmaker with the potential to put up a good amount of points. Very poised and cool with and without the puck and rarely gets caught off guard. In his own end, he plays it fairly simple with good timing and positioning as well as impressive stick work. He plays the body at times, but not very frequently. Needs to become stronger and add more muscles, which would improve his defensive game even more.” 21-years-old

Pietrangelo: “Pietrangelo is as reliable of a defenseman as you will see and has been since his last year in the OHL with the Barrie Colts. He’s strong defensively, he makes an excellent first pass and can log huge minutes while playing in all situations. His hockey IQ is extremely high and while he’s known to jump in the rush a fair bit, he rarely gets caught because of his high end skating ability. He’s also one of the better power play defenseman in all of the NHL. 23-years-old

Tier 2

Shattenkirk: “A puck-moving defenseman with decent defensive and excellent offensive skills. Reliable and creative with the puck in all areas of the ice. Has a dangerous shot, great offensive instincts and is an obvious asset on powerplay. Reads plays well and gives accurate passes.” 24-years-old

Bogosian: Hasn’t developed as many had hoped when he was a top-5 pick in 2008, but he is loaded with untapped potential. An excellent puck mover and he can rush the puck as well. Extremely mobile and he sees a lot of things on the ice that other players don’t see. Injuries have slowed his development but the potential certainly hasn’t went anywhere. If he can stay healthy and is use properly, he can turn into a top pairing defenseman who can put up 40+ points on a yearly basis. Tremendous upside.

Rundblad: “Rundblad is an offensive minded defenseman with very good size and puck skills. He has impressive vision and likes to move the puck into the offensive zone with slick stickhandling and good speed. Handles the puck with confidence and has very good poise. A great option from the blueline, where he releases a fairly accurate shot and also find his teammates with tape-to-tape passes. Size and strength is good. In his own end, Rundblad tends to not play it simple enough at times. He is a tad too creative and could also be more aggressive and determined in his play. If he develops his defensive game, he will be a high-scoring two-way defenseman. If not, he will still be a capable power play quarterback, but a potential liability in his own end.” 22-years-old.

Alzner: “Alzner is one of the most underrated young defenseman in hockey. While you won’t get a ton of offense, he can chip in offensively here and there. Strengths don’t lie in his offensive game, though. Alzner is very good defensively and is very positionally sound. He can take on the oppositions top players each and every night which is rare for a 24-year-old defenseman. Agile for a shutdown defenseman, Alzner is still developing and as he gains more experience he’ll continue to get better and better.

Tier 3

Hamonic: “A physical defenseman with solid offensive abilities. Plays an energetic game and can move around quickly despite his large frame.” 22-years-old.

Voynov: “Still raw, but he’s very, very talented. He has excellent vision, can move the puck well and can play in all situations. Hasn’t scratched the surface of what he can become in the NHL, and he plays big minutes for the defending Stanley Cup Champions who ice pretty much the same team that won them the Cup. That’s saying something.” 23-years-old.

Leddy: “Like Alzner, one of the more underrated defenseman in the NHL. A lot of people still view him as a young prospect who’s still pretty raw, and while he still hasn’t reached his potential he’s already one of the better defenseman in the league at 21-years-old. He’s very mobile and is an excellent puck mover. He’s also pretty good in his own zone. Projection: will be a top pairing defenseman if he isn’t considered that already.

 Tier 4

Savard: “One of the top defensive prospects in hockey. A big time point getter in his time with the Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL and that has translated to the pros, as his 40+ point season in his first AHL season would show. On verge of being NHL-ready. Savard has everything you look for in a defenseman: size, skill, and the potential to be a big minute eater on the back end. He’s a good skater for his size, he is a good puck mover as he has a very good shot. While Savard is yet to solidify himself as a top-4 defenseman in the NHL, I think he will within the next season or two.” 22-years-old.

Others

Luca Sbisa: * “A well-rounded, two-way defenseman. Sbisa skates very well and can log the puck up ice. Also has some nice hands and passing ability. Doesn’t fear contact, but isn’t very aggressive.” 23-years-old

John Moore: * “While I don’t think Moore has as much offensive upside as Savard, he certainly doesn’t lack it. Moore is a big minute munching defenseman who can play a physical game and a skill game. Considering his size, he’s a good skater. He is positionally sound and very hard to get around when you factor in that with his size and active stick. He’s a good passer and has a fair amount of torque on his shots. I think he’ll develop into a very good second pairing defenseman, though he has potential to be a top pairing guy.” 22-years-old.

*-non-RFA’s.

There’s some tweaking that would need to be done in any deal mentioned above, but you get the picture.

There’s no solving Briere’s defensive woes at this point and Laviolette trusts the 14-year veteran in an exclusive top-6 role for the foreseeable future in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for some, his no-movement clause isn’t going anywhere either.

Fans have seen flashes of brilliance from Sean Couturier throughout his young career and have also enjoyed the breakout season for natural center Brayden Schenn.

If a good ol’ hockey trade is born that revolves around Sean Couturier, and helps your team now and in the future, what do you say?

11 Responses to Danny Briere, Sean Couturier and the Philadelphia Flyers Quandary at the Forward Position

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